Tag Archives: verb placement

The Short Story part 1: word choice #amwriting

Last week, we discussed how important exploring the theme is when writing for a themed anthology. This week, we are going deeper, finding ways to show a story and keep it within the word count limits.

Skill as a writer comes with practice. As we continue to work with our writing groups, we become technically better at the mechanics (grammar and punctuation).

Voice is how we bend the rules and is our authorly fingerprint. It will always be distinctly ours, because we all speak differently. However, many of the ways we express ourselves when speaking don’t translate well to writing within a tight framework.

Writing to a strict word count limit forces an author to pare away all that is unnecessary. To do that in 4,000 words or fewer, we choose words that have power.

We have talked about this before: active prose is Noun-Verb centric. If you are writing only for yourself, write any way you choose. But if you are hoping to sell books, it’s wise to keep in mind that today’s reader has high expectations and a great many other books to choose from.

We who write genre fiction (Sci-fi, Fantasy, Mystery, Thriller, Romance) must use words that are dynamic and convey a feeling of action.  In English, words that begin with hard consonants sound tougher and more powerful.

Say you have been invited to submit your work to an anthology. You have been given the theme which plays well to an idea you’ve had for a short story, and you are ready to write it.

But what is the mood you want to convey with your prose? Where you place the words in the sentence dramatically affects the mood, which either highlights or plays down the theme.

  • Placement of verbs in the sentence
    1. Moving the verbs to the beginning of the sentence makes it stronger.
    2. Nouns followed by verbs feel active.

Let’s look at four sentences, two of which are actively phrased, and two are passive. All describe the same self-destructive person, and none are “wrong.” Each conveys a different mood because of how they are expressed.

  1. She runs toward danger, never away.
  2. She never runs away from danger.
  3. Danger approaches, and she runs to meet it.
  4. If it’s dangerous, she runs to it.

I like it when an author makes good use of contrast when describing the difference(s) between two or more things in one sentence. Simplicity has impact. When looking for words with visceral and emotional power, consonants are your friend.

Sunlight glared over the ice, a cold fire in the sky that cast no warmth but burned the eyes.

Verbs are power words. If you choose forceful words, you won’t have to resort to a great deal of description. Weak word choices separate the reader from the experience, dulling the emotional impact of what could be an intense scene.

How we add depth to our prose without weakening it takes time and involves thought in the revision process. Consider word order, think about where you place your verbs, and use ordinary words that most people know and don’t have to look up in a dictionary.

We who write fiction create pictures without paint. We must learn to convey an inner landscape and imaginary world by painting a picture of the setting with a few deliberately chosen words. We also must show the atmosphere, the emotions, and the action.

Readers want us to use words that are “primary colors,” the words most people with an average education understand without having to go to a dictionary.

An example of this is Escape from Spiderhead,” a short science fiction story written by George Saunders and published in his 2013 anthology collection Tenth of December. It was first published in the New Yorker on Dec. 13, 2010.

This is a riveting story, one that challenges the reader to consider the ideas of free will and determinism. It also points out how easy it is for a society to strip certain individuals of their humanity, and how we justify it to ourselves.

Escape from Spiderhead is gut-wrenching and memorable because the words Saunders used to paint it with and the way he used them have power.

Emotional impact is created when an author combines common, everyday words in uncommon ways. I love finding an author whose words speak to me. Their stories surprise me, and the ideas they transmit fundamentally alters my perceptions of the world around me.

Previous in this series:

Theme part 1

Theme part 2


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The Depths of the Word-Pond – Word Choice #amwriting

The depths of the Word-Pond we call Story are clouded and visibility is poor. Who knows what creatures prowl down here, waiting for their next meal?

Exposition, the Kraken of the Deep is down here somewhere, lurking. How will we get out of here alive?

In a balanced narrative, some exposition is essential in order to provide context. How much is inserted and how it is delivered is what makes or breaks a story. The same goes for those subversive packets of inadvertent exposition: adverbs.

Some newly converted zealots loudly repeat mantras uttered by their personal gurus, whispering prayers to the demi-god Elmore Leonard– an author whose advice was good, but who would be surprised to learn he’s been elevated to such heights, his short list of advice turned into a holy text. The crusaders can be recognized from a distance because they’re all standing on soapboxes shouting, “If it sounds like writing, rewrite it. Kill every Darling who uses an adverb!”

That kind of devotion is short-sighted. Words like “later,” or “everywhere,” or “never” or “alone” are adverbs. Do these well-meaning fanatics really believe they can write decent prose with no adverbs whatsoever?

As with all religious cults, there is a solid kernel of truth to that arrogant fixation, but to think you can ban exposition and adverbs from the narrative completely is a delusion. Chuck Wendig, in his post The Danger of Writing Advice from Industry Professionals, says,

“And so the advice really should be, don’t use adverbs or adjectives when they sound awkward, or when they fail to tell us something that we need to know.” [1]

Other Word-Choice Mantras bring discord to the ranks of the newly converted. The word ‘very’ comes in for a lot of abuse in writing groups and writers’ chat rooms.

Suppose you decide to simply eliminate every instance of the word “very” because you have discovered you overuse it. You are savvy—you understand your word-processing program well and know all the shortcuts. You open the navigation pane and bring up the advanced search dialog box. In the ‘Replace With’ box you don’t key anything, because you know this will delete the word and are convinced this will eliminate the problem and tighten your prose.

Before you click ‘replace all’ consider three common words that have the letters v-e-r-y in their makeup:

  • Every
  • Everyone
  • Everything

Deleting every instance of ‘very’ could mess things up on an incredibly large scale. Context is everything. Take the time to look at each example of the offending words and change them individually. You’ve already spent a year or more writing that novel, so why not take the time to do it right?

“Actually” is another word to look at individually. Perhaps you have been told it is a ‘weed word,’ and, feeling mocked by the more experienced authors in your writer’s forum, you experience a nearly uncontrollable gut reaction to eliminate it entirely in a scorched earth campaign. Before you obey that compulsion, examine the context.

Have you used the word “actually” in a conversation? If so, you may want to keep it, as dialogue must sound natural, and people use that word in conversation.

Just as the laws of physics break down at the center of a Black Hole, the inviolable laws of grammar break down in conversations. And, just as gravity still rules, keeping chaos constrained in the singularity, punctuation still reigns in conversation, holding our sentences together.

Now that we have adverbs and religious zealots out of the way let’s continue on with word choice. Words, carefully chosen and used properly, have power. Choosing your words with care and binding them into small packets inserted into conversations is how you distribute your exposition (backstory) without resorting to a blatant info dump. Dole it out in small portions, delivered only when the reader needs to know it.

We choose words with power. In English, words that begin with hard consonants sound tougher and therefore carry more power.

Verbs are power words. Fluff-words and obscure words used too freely are kryptonite, sapping the strength from our prose.

  • Placement of verbs in the sentence
    1. Moving the verbs to the beginning of the sentence makes it stronger.
    2. Nouns followed by verbs make active prose.
      1. I ran toward danger, never away.
  • Parallel construction
    1. When two or more ideas are compared in a sentence, each part of the sentence uses the same grammatical structure.
    2. What parallelism means can be shown by a quote attributed to Julius Caesar, who used the phrase “I came; I saw; I conquered.” in a letter to the Roman Senate after he had achieved a quick victory in the Battle of Zela. Caesar gives equal importance to the different ideas of coming, seeing, and conquering.
  • Contrast
    1. In literature, we use contrast when we describe the difference(s) between two or more things in one sentence.
    2. The blue sun burned like fire, but the ever-present wind chilled one to the bone.
  • Simile
    1. Similes show the resemblances between two things through the use of words such as “like” and “as.” They are different from metaphors, which imply that something “is” something else.
    2. The blue sun burned like fire.
  • Deliberate repetition.
    1. Repetition of the last word in a line or clause.
    2. Repetition of words at the start of clauses or verses.
    3. Repetition of words or phrases in the opposite sense.
    4. Repetition of words broken by some other words.
    5. Repetition of the same words at the end and start of a sentence.
    6. Repetition of a phrase or question to stress a point.
    7. Repetition of the same word at the end of each clause.
    8. Repetition of an idea, first in negative terms and then in positive terms.
    9. Repetition of words of the same root with different endings.
    10. Repetition both at the end and at the beginning of a sentence, paragraph, or scene.
    11. It can also be a construction in poetry where the last word of one clause becomes the first word of the next clause.

Every book is a quotation, and every house is a quotation out of all forests, and mines, and stone quarries; and every man is a quotation from all his ancestors.”  Ralph Waldo Emerson, Prose and Poetry. [2]

  • Alliteration
    1. The occurrence of the same letter (or sound) at the beginning of successive words.
      1. Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled p
      2. Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary, (The Raven, by Edgar Allan Poe 1845) [3]
  • When I see birches bend to left and right

Across the lines of straighter darker trees, (Birches, by Robert Frost 1916) [4]

Poets know and use all the above word choice concepts to convey large ideas and entire stories with a minimum of words.

How we add depth to our prose without adding kryptonite involves verb placement and using ordinary words that most people know and don’t have to look up in a dictionary. Craft happens when you combine those common words in unexpected ways, forming extraordinary passages.

Credits and Attributions:

[1] The Danger of Writing Advice from Industry Professionals, by Chuck Wendig, Terribleminds,  The Ramble, http://terribleminds.com/ramble/2017/12/12/the-danger-of-writing-advice-from-industry-professionals/  ©2017. Accessed 31 July 2019.

[2] Ralph Waldo Emerson, The Complete Works. Published in 1904. Vol. VIII. Letters and Social Aims, VI. Quotation and Originality, Bartleby.com, accessed (31 July 2019)

[3] Wikipedia contributors, “The Raven,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=The_Raven&oldid=908701892 (accessed July 31, 2019).

[4] Wikipedia contributors, “Birches (poem),” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Birches_(poem)&oldid=886359747 (accessed July 31, 2019).


Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:Print, Three ships surrounded by monsters, ca. 1590 (CH 18553601).jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Print,_Three_ships_surrounded_by_monsters,_ca._1590_(CH_18553601).jpg&oldid=276506077 (accessed July 31, 2019).

Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:Black hole – Messier 87.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Black_hole_-_Messier_87.jpg&oldid=359992100(accessed July 31, 2019).

Wikipedia contributors, “Childe Hassam,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Childe_Hassam&oldid=831999910 (accessed April 6, 2018).


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